The Walking Nightmares

(Originally written for The Boulder Weekly1)

Full Moon

Under a full moon during the lead-up to Halloween, zombies, killer clowns and a bloody bride mill around in a defunct furniture store in Longmont’s Twin Peaks mall, snacking on burritos and corn chips while they trade scare tactics and reminisce about their former victims.

“Were you in the room with me when we made that football player scream like a girl?” a ghoul asks.

“I don’t think so,” another bemoans before recounting a story of his own.

These monsters are actors — mostly high schoolers — readying themselves for opening night at the Longmont Purgatory haunted house. Now in its second year, Purgatory is starting to find its groove after working out the kinks.

“The rooms are a lot more put together this year,” says student actress Mandie Vigil, while sister Sosha Vigil helps smear her face with ghostly white paint.

“And it’s a lot more unexpected,” Sosha adds. “Last year, it had more of a theme. This year, it’s just a haunted house, so you don’t know what to expect.”

Louie Lopez is the man responsible for the divergence. Though staff members have no official titles, he is in essence Purgatory’s creative director (“He’s an artist,” one volunteer organizer offers). In the hours leading up to the house’s first guests, he’s scurrying around Purgatory’s 10-odd rooms, making sure the traps are set and all safety precautions are in order. Though Lopez is the only staff member out of costume, the radio headset he issues directives into lends him the air of a professional football coach.

I find Lopez in the first room, tweaking Purgatory’s introductory set piece: an eye-level spotlight that hits customers right after they read a list of safety guidelines. He asks me to help him test it out and I oblige. The concentrated light flicks on for a few seconds and back off. In the sudden darkness, I’m all but blind.

“Now try and walk forward in the dark,” Lopez says mischievously. “Kinda crazy, right?”

For all their work, Lopez and his crew are humble, preferring to focus on the volunteers’ effort rather than their own. Longmont’s Children and Youth Resources and friends built the majority of Purgatory, they tell me.

“All these walls were put up by staff members — well, husbands and others, really,” Lopez says, laughing. “There´s a lot of different partners involved.”

In addition, a portion of the proceeds from the haunted house will aid children affected by the recent flooding in the area.

As showtime approaches, I say goodbye and head out front to get in line for the first walkthrough. The maiden tour would not be without its bumps — at one point, a tossed bucket grazes the noggin of a little girl in my group — but it makes good on the requisite thrills. Afterward, bucket girl isn’t fazed in the slightest; she’s too caught up reliving her favorite Purgatory moments.

“When the guy [came] out with the chainsaw, we both dropped to the floor,” she says breathlessly of her and a friend. The girl’s father agrees with a chuckle.

“You know the guy doesn’t have a chainsaw,” he says, “but it’s fun to suspend disbelief.”

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